Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Caravaggio’s surviving works are scattered like drops of blood from a wound. Running from a death sentence in Rome after killing a man in a brawl, he moved from city to city. Seeking refuge with the Knights of Malta, his vicious temper once again unseated him and he was forced to run again. Seeking a pardon he was ambushed, cut about the face and ran once more. Finally, desperate to recover works lost when a ship sailed without him, he died from fever on a beach, alone and ruined. He was 39.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio always worked in shadows. His pictures were located in the streets and taverns he frequented and peopled by those he met there. Dirt, blood and sweat were as important as paint. These realistic, humble, everyday settings were too realistic for many, but after the death of Ranuccio Tommassoni guilt, violence, retribution and death became Caravaggio’s bargaining tools and constant fear pushed him to early maturity during his flight.
Here, biblical Jewish heroine Judith has seduced Assyrian general Holofernes and now decapitates him with his own sword. She goes about her grisly task with observed determination in an unbearably confined picture space, red with blood.
Oil on canvas, 144 x 195cm, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica (Palazzo Barberini), Rome (image artbible.info)
Judith Beheading Holofernes
by Caravaggio, c.1599
a work in 200 words